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July 20, 2009 3:52 PM

GC Compensation: Not Bad, Considering

Posted by Amy Miller

Over the last decade, general counsel of the nation's largest corporations have gotten rich from stock grants and options. Not last year. For the first time since the dot-com recession, those awards dropped. In fact, the average stock award plunged 18 percent. But GCs still managed to eke out modest raises in 2008, even as the economy plunged into its worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Those are the main findings of Corporate Counsel's 2009 GC Compensation Survey. In a typical year, one form of compensation is up, another is down, but rarely is the cash up/stocks down divide so pronounced. And rarely was the "up" so meager.

Last year's average bonus/nonequity incentive award was up less than 1 percent, to $1.16 million. That's a stark contrast to 2007, when bonuses jumped to $1.15 million, 17 percent higher than the previous year. Meanwhile, average salaries rose 5 percent, to nearly $600,000 in 2008. That brought the average cash payout (salary and bonus) to $1.8 million, a 2.6 percent increase.

On the other hand, awards of company shares crashed. The average stock award fell by $235,994 to $1.1 million. The average option award, the darling of the tech bubble years, continued its decline, dropping 7 percent, to about $670,000.

Still, by the standards of a working population dealing with everything from mass layoffs to unpaid furloughs, top legal officers at Fortune 500 companies continued to earn a very decent living. For example, the chief legal officer for San Diego-based Qualcomm Incorporated, Donald Rosenberg, debuted on Corporate Counsel's survey with an eye-popping $9.1 million in bonuses. Says legal department consultant Rees Morrison, "It's no wonder that these are coveted positions."

Access the full compensation report, from the August 2009 issue of Corporate Counsel, here.

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